Granting an hourlong, prime-time interview to her friend Barbara Walters this month, Oprah Winfrey spoke of self-sacrifice in such a way that the taping ought to have taken place in the Garden of Gethsemane.
In preparing to wrap up 25 years of her daytime talk show, the epic cultural influence of which defies measurement, and start the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), which will be filled with purpose-driven lifestyle programming and seen in some 80 million households, Winfrey told Walters she sees herself neither as billionaire nor celebrity.
In the end, she is but a vessel of God: "Use me," Winfrey said she asks the Lord. "Use me until you use me up."
She has a way of basking too often in the very miracle of herself -- a poor Southern black child lifted to global prominence -- and yet her real skill is how she invites you to bask in your own miraculousness. Everything is geared toward becoming, rejuvenating and, appropriately enough to the new year, resolving. Your personal sense of Oprahness, as well as your ability to be everything Oprah hopes you can be, is entirely up to ... you.
This Oprah-as-earthen-vessel notion stuck with me as I dived into previews of some of the shows that will be seen on OWN when it launches at noon on New Year's Day.
While far from perfect, the network is suffused with a desire to ennoble, share, cleanse and elevate. Admiring what turned out to be a fairly nutritious array of new ideas in OWN's initial offerings, I found myself imagining the world a few centuries from now. There is only one prediction to make about the future (and I'm not the first to make it), and it is this: There will be Oprah churches all over the world. OWN is just one step in a process that will more fully (and valiantly, it turns out) spread the Oprah worldview.
I'm not sure how these churches will reconcile the many theological qualms that will arise -- can Oprah align with the Trinity? etc. -- but one thing Oprah church historians will have, barring any digital archive disaster, is the Christmastime story of the birth of OWN.
With new reality-based shows about clutter, sex, relationships, families, miracles, spiritual balance, healthy cooking and a daily dose of Oprah BFF Gayle King's talk show, we shall see the fullest, epistolary template for what Oprah desired most for her devoted minions.
Watching OWN's shows, I noticed that they all in one way or another carry a classy Oprah-worthy imprimatur, in which value is placed on truth and learning.
Nowhere is that more evident than on "Oprah Presents Master Class," a cinema-quality, on-camera conversation that is edited into something like a monologue about the meaning of life. The first episodes of "Master Class" feature Jay-Z and Diane Sawyer; forthcoming episodes will feature more larger-than-life personalities: Simon Cowell, Maya Angelou, Lorne Michaels -- a group of people who could be thought of as Almost as Big as Oprah.
The point here is to extract their wisdom and reassemble it in a way that is edifying and absorbing. It's not an interview with Oprah, per se, who appears only occasionally to provide narration or effuse. Instead, "Master Class" is more like Oprah's version of one of those too-slick biographical films of presidential candidates shown at election-year conventions.
The rest of OWN, for the time being, more resembles that endless supply of how-to shows and busy-mom shows and that-looks-delicious shows that cable viewers already spend so much time watching.
And then, without warning, OWN finds its sweet spot with the story of a woman who can reach sexual climax only with the help of an overturned purple laundry basket.
Placed just so.
That would be the first episode of "In the Bedroom with Dr. Laura Berman," a sex-therapy show that, if nothing else, fully illustrates Oprah's devotion to the baring of personal details. It was she, after all, who brought Dr. Mehmet Oz into national renown for his ability to get us talking about the size and shape of our excrement -- especially Oprah's own output.
Likewise, sex. The upbeat and no-nonsense Berman, who's had her own radio show for a while on Winfrey's Harpo satellite network, goes to people's homes and talks to them about their lackluster sex lives. From the first episode, Berman obliterates whatever residual blushing remains from the olden days when Dr. Ruth Westheimer talked about vibrators and lubricant on late-night call-in shows.
"In the Bedroom" takes one question (such as, "What can I do about the fact that my husband and I haven't had sex in five months?") and visits the home of the questioner, putting an everyday couple through a grueling crash course in sex therapy. If OWN were more cynically devised, "In the Bedroom" would be on constantly, while the nation sits rapt with mesmerized embarrassment. It's that good, and it's likely the network's surefire hit.
Berman arrives in suburban Wisconsin to visit Becky, 33, and Steve, 36. They have two kids. She works full time and he mostly stays at home doing the chores -- which is such a turnoff, Becky says. She wants a take-charge man who will "wear the pants" and boss her around a little, especially between the sheets. But, as the doctor quickly ascertains, Becky has troubles with her own bossiness.
"I hate that I don't respect him," Becky says.
We hate it, too, and feel awful for Steve; perhaps a bit less so when Becky finally reveals to Berman that one of the problems in the bedroom is that a crucial part of Steve is "too large." He manages the most subtle smile here, and the viewer no longer feels quite so bad for him.
In their 15 years together, Becky has somehow become addicted to the laundry basket, overturned so she can lean on it for maximized satisfaction - a trick she learned on her own and now incorporates into the couple's lovemaking.
"In the Bedroom" illustrates one of Oprah's and OWN's core missions: to create a safe space where we can talk about anything, presuming a level of maturity and openness that Oprah worked nearly three decades to create in her audiences. OWN asks us if we are able to deal -- indeed, if we are ready to deal -- with any subject in the frankest possible manner.
It's difficult to launch an entire network at once and hope for a cohesive identity, but I'm struck by OWN's consistency. Although the shows are made by a variety of production outfits, the basic tenets of living Oprah-style come through loud and clear:
1. Stuff is only stuff.
2. Parenting is golden.
3. You are special.
I'm only half-kidding about there one day being churches in which Oprah's image is holographically enshrined in stained glass. And because she so tirelessly encourages inquiry, education and basic joy, I can think of worse things around which to build a faith-based organization.
As a movement, Oprahism can no longer be contained in a single show or magazine or website. At its best, OWN carefully illuminates the Oprah way. At its worst, the network is simply like any other mediocre cable channel, desperate to fill its schedule grid with shows that feel new enough to draw viewers in and addictive enough to keep them couchbound.
Eventually OWN, too, lapses into showing movies packed with commercial breaks, which in this case means repeats of "An Officer and a Gentleman," "The Way We Were" and, yes, "The Color Purple" -- old weepies disguised as sophisticated chick-flick stopgap programming.
That is the great discrepancy in a life spent Obeying Oprah: She asks you to live to the fullest, but to do that, you'll need to sit around a lot and watch TV.